Nostalgia for the past is one of the most powerful promotional draws for restaurant customers. Even millennials respond favorably to the classic services that made many restaurants and soda fountains unique, charismatic centers of neighborhood social life in past decades. Places like soda fountains, butcher shops and local restaurants offered highly customized foods, regional specialties and curb service.

Today’s consumers often long for the features and foods of the restaurants in their pasts. Nostalgia or retro marketing can reach customers who long for comfort food, friendlier service and retro fashions, especially those features that were popular when people were young or going through puberty. Restaurateurs can capitalize on the love for nostalgia in creative ways by using digital technologies to support the classic service standards of friendly neighborhood restaurants of the 1950s through the 1990s.

Retro Triggers that Attract Restaurant Customers

Your strategy for nostalgia marketing depends on what you’re trying to sell. You can choose to market the comfort foods of past generations or create an atmosphere that reminds people of a different decade. Nostalgia influences people to spend more money, feel more social and feel better about themselves.

Your choice of strategy depends on the customers that you want to entice. If your market is 30-somethings, the 1990s are a good choice. If your customers are older, you might target the 1980s or 1970s. The television series “That 70s Show” became popular from 1998 to 2006 because the average age of Nielsen’s prime demographic group of ages 18-49 grew up in the 1970s and experienced strong nostalgic feelings for the decade. Similarly, “Happy Days,” which ran from 1974 to 1984 and recalled the 1950s, was popular because the prime demographic group of television viewers at that time grew up in the 1950s.

Depending on your city, you could go further back in time if the time period connects with your city in some important way. For example, the 1960s in San Francisco generate a lot of nostalgia for the “Summer of Love.” Chicago, Detroit and New York developed a big reputation during the “Roaring Twenties,” and Harlem experienced its famed “Golden Age” during the 1920s and 1930s.

Ideas for restaurant retro marketing include:

  • Serving Comfort Foods
    Comfort foods are big nostalgic draws, and you can often produce these classic foods with healthier ingredients. Macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, country fried steak, scrapple and eggs and steak and potatoes are popular choices. Soda fountain beverages like custom sodas, egg creams, black and white ice cream sodas and shakes, White Cows and ginger ale floats are some of the most powerful nostalgic draws.
  • Channeling the Past with Décor
    Checkered tablecloths, vintage diner signs, retro jukeboxes, pinball machines and early video games can bring the past alive in your restaurant. Old advertising signs for Coca Cola, Bob’s Big Boy, Dr. Pepper and others can also set the theme for temporary or permanent nostalgia marketing. Old posters of popular stars, television shows and movies are also great ideas. Retro furniture ideas include lots of chrome, padded bar stools, Art Deco designs in black, white and red and antique appliances.
  • Music That Soothes
    Music is one of the most powerful ways to induce feelings of nostalgia. Create a playlist of popular tunes for the decade that you’re simulating. You can play oldies exclusively or mix them with modern music.
  • Pictures that Recall a Thousand Memories
    People find old photos fascinating. Restaurants can display old photos that focus on the restaurant, city or country to set the mood for nostalgia. Another option is to display posters and photos that were likely to be on the walls in past decades.
  • Service with a Smile
    People remember the past as the golden age of service when real people answered the phone, people could fill a car with people and pay a small price to visit the local drive-in movie theater and skating servers delivered food right to their cars. Sonic has capitalized on nostalgia for the drive-in diner, and restaurants can offer the same service with a twist: modern ordering options and digital menu boards.

Duck and Cover: Throwback Marketing

The concept of throwback Thursdays has gained a big following on social media, and you can leverage nostalgia for your restaurant as a one-time event or a regular feature without committing to permanent changes in your restaurant’s concept. Restaurants can feature a special menu, retro prices, customer-generated nostalgic photographs and videos or entertainment options in the dining room that recall bygone times. Other marketing ideas for throwbacks include:

  • Broadcasting videos of the popular TV shows of past decades
  • Playing music from the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 1960s or 1950s
  • Displaying historic photos of your city
  • Sponsoring throwback fashion nights where people dress in the styles of yesteryear
  • Displaying childhood photos of the restaurant’s staff
  • Encouraging customers to submit their own photos and mementos for restaurant displays
  • Decorating the restaurant in period style
  • Designing a special menu with diner lingo

Honestly speaking, most people wouldn’t enjoy living in the past. Technology advances really do make life easier. Restaurants can offer their customers more choices, better food safety, faster service and better customer experiences than in any previous generation. Nostalgia produces fond memories and glosses over the drawbacks. Restaurants can offer their customers the best of both worlds — treasured foods, music, dining environments and services of the past with all the modern technology and conveniences that people take for granted.

Whether you offer permanent nostalgia or throwbacks on Thursdays or special occasions, retro marketing can attract large audiences, get people to spend more money and satisfy cravings for the past. Happy, nostalgic customers develop greater loyalty to your brand, and your unique selling proposition is something that your competitors can’t match without changing their operations dramatically.